Many of the 49 people killed in Sunday's plane crash in Lexington died on impact and "very few" had smoke in their lungs or windpipes, Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said last night.
Ginn had originally said Sunday that most of the victims probably died from the fire in the aircraft.
There were "different levels of burning and charring" on the bodies that underwent autopsies yesterday at the State Central Laboratory in Frankfort. Most of the dead were found in the plane's fuselage and were believed to be belted in, Ginn said.
The coroner, who is leading the investigation of the deaths, expected the autopsies to be completed last night and said authorities then will begin the process of identification.
That will include making X-rays of individuals' teeth and matching them to dental records. Fayette County Sheriff Kathy Witt volunteered deputies to travel around Lexington and Central Kentucky collecting dental records of the dead, he said.
He asked family members with medical or dental records of crash victims to contact his office at (859) 455-5700 or fax information to (859) 455-5711.
Ginn could not say when bodies will be released to families. Before releasing any body, he wants to make sure the crash site has been cleared completely of body tissue.
Kentucky's chief medical examiner, Dr. Tracey Corey, said yesterday it has not yet been determined how long the victims' bodies will remain at the state lab. They all were brought there by Sunday night.
Positive identification of the 49 dead will be an arduous task but is likely to be completed, particularly if the dead have existing close relatives, says the founder of Kentucky's medical examiner's office.
"The job of identifying a body that is not identifiable by sight is difficult but there are a couple of things going on in this case that will make the job easier," said Dr. George R. Nichols II, who has performed more than 10,000 autopsies and has worked some of Kentucky's deadlier disasters.
Nichols, who now runs a medical legal consultant business in Louisville, was the state's chief medical examiner when 23 people were killed on an Air Canada plane in June 1983 that caught fire en route from Texas to Toronto and was forced to land at Greater Cincinnati Airport in Northern Kentucky.
He also was Kentucky's medical examiner in May 1988 when 27 people were killed on a church bus when a drunken driver plowed into it on I-71 near Carrollton. In 1977, he was a consultant to the governor's office in the 165 deaths at the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate.
Nichols said the job of identifying bodies is "much easier" when there is a list of the victims.
"For the Air Canada case and the Carrollton bus crash, we had a manifest of the victims. We didn't at Beverly Hills and that made identification more difficult. There is a manifest of the passengers on the Comair that crashed Sunday. That will be a big help."
Nichols also said the state now has a modern facility in Frankfort to conduct numerous post-mortem exams.
"At Carrollton, we performed 27 autopsies in an armory. It was operable but not the best conditions. But that accident occurred late on a Saturday night and all the dead were identified by 5 p.m. the following Monday."
The autopsies for those victims not identifiable by sight from the Lexington crash, Nichols said, involve several tests.
It's doubtful that fingerprinting would be productive if intense fires burned away finger prints, he said. Teeth can burn if the fire is hot enough, Nichols said, but dental records can show procedures such as fillings and root canals, even sinuses.
Forensic dentists often can eyeball the dental records with the mouth of the deceased and determine whether there is a positive identification, Nichols said, adding that X-rays are used for confirmation.
Blood tests will be taken of each victim to compare DNA, possibly with relatives, Nichols said. If there is an existing close relative, genetic determinations make identification much more likely, he said.
Body fluids also can be tested after a fire, Nichols said. "Even though fluids evaporate in intense heat, they can leave a genetic marker -- a residue, if you will."
There also are tests for blood alcohol content in fire victims, Nichols said. Routine tests for blood alcohol content will be performed on the pilot, co-pilot, all the passengers and even the tower control officer, he said.